Sources of Bonsai Material
Whether you plan to grow just one or two trees, or to cultivate a collection of bonsai, there are various ways of acquiring your plants. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and each requires a different amount of effort and commitment.
Buying a Bonsai
The quickest method of obtaining a bonsai is simply to buy one from a bonsai nursery, a garden center or a botanical garden. The main advantage is that you will instantly own a "ready-made" bonsai; however, the specimens may be very expensive, of poor quality, or not in top-notch condition. Many bonsai trees sold in countries outside Asia have been imported from Japan, so their price includes transport and handling costs. In some areas, there are few bonsai outlets, and you may need to travel some distance to find one. Some plants sold as bonsai are not true bonsai, but merely young trees growing in pots.
Trees From the Wild
There is no advantage in collecting seedlings or saplings from the wild, but often mature trees become naturally dwarfed by climatic conditions, an inhospitable habitat, or persistent grazing. It is sometimes possible to lift a dwarfed tree from the wild and replant it in a container. Such a tree may be quite old, with an attractively mature trunk, branches, and bark texture. It is more difficult to produce these "aged" characteristics in other ways.
The main disadvantage is that it can take you much time and effort to find a suitable tree. You will also need permission from the owner of the land on which it is growing to lift it. In some areas, it is illegal to remove living plants from their habitat.
It is also essential that you move the tree at the right time of year, ideally in late winter, or in early spring before bud break. You should certainly not attempt it when the tree is in full leaf. It is also difficult to re-establish a mature tree as a bonsai. You will usually have to plant it out in a garden bed or suitable container to regain its vigor for four to five years.
Many environmentalists now find it questionable whether trees should be collected from the wild at all, although there are some justifiable occasions, say, if the land is going to be cleared anyway for redevelopment.
It can be a good idea to buy a plant from a garden center or nursery and adapt it into a bonsai. There are plenty of suitable species to choose from in these outlets, and you can usually purchase such plants fairly cheaply. Pruning the plant into a basic bonsai shape takes very little time, so you can produce the basic structure of an interesting bonsai in a few hours, or even in minutes.
The disadvantage is that garden center and nursery plants may not be suitable for bonsai, as they have been developed for garden use. Tall-growing trees are especially problematic, but you can easily prune many specimens of smaller trees and shrubs into tree-like shapes.
Growing material for a bonsai from seed is cheap, but has several serious disadvantages. It is time-consuming: firstly, some seeds take two years to germinate, and secondly, each seedling must be planted in open ground for several years before it has developed sufficiently for bonsai styling. Tree seeds do not stay viable for very long, and may not germinate well.
Trees grown from seeds often do not come true to their parent plant, and therefore a seedling may not display the same attractive characteristics, such as small fruits or leaves, that made you choose the species as suitable for bonsai in the first place.
Propagating cuttings to create your own bonsai material has several advantages. You can easily obtain the original material, even using shoots discarded from routine pruning of an existing plant. Cuttings are a speedy method: many root quickly, even within a few weeks, and may then put on as much growth in six months as a seedling would achieve in three or four years. Finally, cutting material does retain the parent's characteristics. The only disadvantage is that cuttings from some species either do not root or are difficult to cultivate.
Other Propagating Methods
Grafting, layering, and air layering are propagation methods that all produce offspring with exactly the same characteristics as the parent plant. As with cuttings, these methods are much quicker than growing from seed because they use material from a mature plant. For beginners or inexperienced growers, the main disadvantage with grafting is that it needs a considerable degree of technical skill and dexterity.
Grafting bonsai pines has one unique advantage. If you graft Pinus parviflora, the Japanese white pine, which has attractive needles, on to Pinus thunbergii, the Japanese black pine, you will gain a strong root system, and a bonsai with more character, as the black pine has a rugged, aged-looking trunk, while that of the white pine is smooth.